Among the scores of city civil servants who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic have been 9/11 World Trade Center cancer survivors like Det. Robert Cardona, who joined the NYPD in July 2001, just two months before the terrorist attacks.
The coronavirus is particularly lethal for people with pre-existing conditions like the tens of thousands of 9/11 first responders and civilian survivors who are enrolled with the World Trade Center Health Program and suffer from one or more cancers and other illnesses.
'A Challenge for Them'
"It's been a challenge for the WTC-affected patients—both those with cancer and those with respiratory disorders, who are all at increased risk for COVID-19," said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, Director of the Northwell Health Queens World Trade Center Program. "We have had to convert our program to telemedicine for the time being to minimize the risks to our patients—we don't want them coming in for an evaluation and being around other people."
"9/11 responders are scared, nervous and worried that being compromised puts them at a higher risk. And we have lost many already to COVID-19," said John Feal, a 9/11 responder and founder of the FealGood Foundation.
On social media, he described his own bout with COVID-19 and his response to a call from public-health officials to donate his plasma. According to the American Red Cross, individuals who have fully recovered from the virus can provide their plasma, which is being used as a convalescent therapy for severe COVID-19 patients.
"The concerns of the 9/11 responders during the COVID-19 are quite real, as they were already walking on eggshells or standing at the edge of a cliff as a result of their underlying 9/11 conditions," said Matt McCauley, a former member of the NYPD and an attorney specializing in 9/11 cases. "Now they are facing the outbreak of a virus that can very easily break them or push them off the cliff. This insidious virus seems to wreak havoc with those that are immunocompromised and/or suffer from underlying respiratory conditions."
Tougher to Recover
He continued, "The 9/11 responders have been warned for years by the World Trade Center Health Program that because of their 9/11 conditions they are more susceptible to illness and they will likely have a more-difficult time recovering from illness because of their 9/11 conditions. Now they are staring into the eye of the perfect storm, and it is something that could be brought to them with the simple kiss of an asymptomatic grandchild who is a carrier."
Mr. McCauley said he has had to advise 9/11 families who have lost a loved one to the pandemic to "confer with the treating physicians about having the 9/11 conditions listed on death certificates as contributing factors because they may have played a significant role with the susceptibility to contract COVID-19 and in the inability to fight it off."
"This is incredibly important to protect their benefits and their families," he said. "Just like it took a little while for 9/11 science to catch up with what we knew and saw in the 9/11 community, we fully expect 9/11-COVID science to show that the 9/11 responders were the perfect target for COVID-19."
Under the WTC Health Program, close to 80,000 of the estimated 90,000 9/11 first-responders are enrolled and automatically entitled to free, annual health screenings.
Covers 400,000 Survivors
The program is also open to 400,000 survivors who lived, worked or went to school south of Houston St. or in western Brooklyn on the day of the attacks or during the cleanup that went on for more than eight months.
Only about 25,000 survivors—roughly 6 percent of the at-risk survivor population—are enrolled in the program, according to its website. In that survivor cohort are close to 20,000 former city public-school students who attended 29 schools in the areas covered by the WTC Health Program.
In the years since, Teachers, support staff and students from those schools have been certified with a myriad of WTC health conditions, with some dying.
One program member, Lila Nordstrom, was a 17-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School on the day of the attacks in 2001. She started StuyHealth, a non-profit which helps WTC survivors navigate the program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which was permanently reauthorized by Congress last year.
She has been working with the United Federation of Teachers and the city Department of Education to try to locate thousands of former city students who may be unaware of their post-9/11 health risk and potential vulnerability to COVID-19.
'A New Urgency'
"The pandemic has absolutely given our work contacting students about the WTCHP new urgency, especially considering how important it is for disaster victims to have access to affordable mental-health care right now," Ms. Nordstrom said in an email. "The members of our community most at risk for losing insurance and income are often the ones who need those services the most, so we're making sure to let them know the WTCHP provides them to their members."
She added, "We've also felt a responsibility to do broader informational outreach, because we want to make sure that 9/11's students know to take extra precautions right now. A lot of us are young and feel generally healthy but are also in the group doctors consider high-risk. We recognize that our target audience still feels the invincibility of youth, but urge them not to live like they are actually invincible at this scary time."
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